In February 2022, the regents voted to build a 1,200-bed dorm on North Campus. Less than ten months later, they reversed themselves and approved a 2,300-bed complex on Elbel Field north of Hill St.

CFO Geoff Chatas and VP for student life Martino Harmon signed both recommendations. The second resolution didn’t explain why their advice had changed so quickly.

The need, at least, is clear. With freshmen classes growing rapidly—18 percent between 2018 and 2022—Ann Arbor enrollment topped 51,000 this year. Yet the university has built only two new dorms, North Quad and the Munger Graduate Residences, since the 1960s. “In 2004, the university’s student-to-bed ratio was 40 percent,” Harmon and Chatas told the regents, “but today it has dropped to just 28 percent.”

President Santa Ono told the regents that the university intends to provide enough dorm space so that “all first-year students who want to live on Central Campus are able to live there”—starting with a 2,300-bed complex on Elbel Field, between Central and South campuses.

Some of the gap has been filled by private developers, who have added close to 4,000 beds in campus-area high-rises. Another 900 are under construction, with still more planned (“Going Up,” April). But rents continue to rocket upwards as increasing enrollment claims many of the new units.

But why switch from North Campus to Central Campus? Interim VP for communications Rick Fitzgerald emails that 87 percent of students prefer to live there, which is “part of the reason the University shifted its focus to develop additional Central Campus housing first.” But Fitzgerald declined to arrange interviews with those involved in the change of plans, explaining it only as “a university decision.”  

All guesses point to the president’s office. Told the Observer was trying to learn who decided to build on Central Campus, a local politician replied, “I know! It’s Santa Ono. The students want it, and he listens to the students.”

Generations of students have complained about being placed in dorms on North Campus when their classes are on Central Campus, and thanks to his tweets and Instagram posts, Ono has a more direct connection with them than his predecessors did. And since taking office in October, he’s been moving fast. In his March inaugural address, he noted that while “universities typically evolve and change gradually,” they “may also go through periods of sudden, rapid change, through a punctuated equilibrium that opens new horizons and sets them on a decisive new trajectory.” Calling this a “time to dare great challenges and dream bold dreams,” he added, “we will also build.”

At the December meeting, Ono told the regents that the university intends to provide enough dorm space so that “all first-year students who want to live on Central Campus are able to live there.” The 2,300 beds planned for Elbel Field is exactly the number of students that Harmon said “were turned away from campus housing due to lack of capacity” this year.

The regents approved architectural renderings of a five-building complex and 900-seat dining hall in February, with an estimated price tag of $490 to $540 million. The Michigan Marching Band, which practices on Elbel Field, will be relocated to a $15 million facility that’s already under construction on the former Fingerle Lumber Yard at Fifth Ave. and Madison.

According to the Record, construction will be overseen by American Campus Communities, the Texas-based developer that owns the Hub high-rise on E. Huron and the Willowtree apartments across from North Campus. Plans call for opening “the dining facility and the first 1,300 beds by fall 2025,” with “the remaining 1,000 beds to open by fall 2026, pending the board’s approval in May.”

Fitzgerald emails that ACC was brought in “to leverage their expertise to manage the project design and construction.” Once they’re complete, “the facilities will be owned, operated and maintained by U-M.”

Students interviewed for a recent episode of “The Daily Weekly,” a Michigan Daily podcast, complained that the site is a twelve-minute walk to the Diag, uphill, and little about the neighborhood is attractive to them. “Is that even Central Campus?” one quipped. City planning manager Brett Lenart noted that students in the new residence hall will want more amenities nearby, and the neighborhood around Elbel Field will be among several that will be considered for rezoning to permit more commercial uses during the city’s upcoming revision of its comprehensive plan.

Many of the students living in the new residence halls will be sophomores who may be relieved not to seek housing in a private market where the median rent for a studio is $1,674, according to Unlike in most university towns, on-
campus housing at U-M is typically more affordable than renting in Ann Arbor.

To promote connections between students in the sprawling five-building complex, residences will be organized into thirty-bed communities, each featuring a common area and a resident advisor’s room. Along with a host of amenities, plans call for LEED Platinum energy efficiency, thanks in part to geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels, and an all-electric kitchen in the dining hall. “With addressing climate change being one of my top priorities from day one of my presidency, a project of this magnitude has to be a driver towards the carbon neutrality targets and goals that we’ve articulated,” Ono told the Daily.

The university is already looking ahead to a second, nearby dorm that could create another 2,500 beds. In addition to Fingerle’s showroom and drive-thru warehouse, it would replace the U-M Sports Coliseum at First and Hill and homes and apartment buildings between Fifth Ave. and S. Division all the way to E. Madison. Most of those properties have already been acquired by regent and McKinley Associates founder Ron Weiser, who’s said he will transfer ownership to the university at cost.

“I’m very excited that we’re doing this,” Ono told the Daily in a March interview. “I think it’s long overdue.” The two dorms will increase the university’s bed count by almost 50 percent, and the fast-moving president doesn’t expect to stop there. 

“Even though that North Campus residence hall project is on pause,” Ono told the Daily, “I fully expect that during the campus planning process there’ll be some aspect of housing that will be considered for North Campus.”